Slow Reading (1.17): Deleuze’s DR (pp. 15-18)

Deleuze begins the fourth section of his introduction to Difference and Repetition with a short reflection on his third section. This reflection reframes the difficult issue of “natural blockage” by pointing out its limitation as a ground for devising a concept of repetition. He writes,

In all [the] cases [of natural blockage], however, conceptual identity or Sameness of representation is invoked to account for repetition: repetition is attributed to elements which are really distinct but nevertheless share strictly the same concept. Repetition thus appears as a difference, but a difference absolutely without concept; in this sense, an indifferent difference. [. . .] [A]n important drawback compromises this whole endeavour. As long as we invoke absolute conceptual identity for distinct objects, we suggest a purely negative explanation, an explanation by default [. . .] In all these cases, that which repeats does so only by dint of not ‘comprehending’, not remembering, not knowing or not being conscious. Throughout, the inadequacy of concepts and of their representative concomitants (memory and self-consciousness, remembrance and recognition) is supposed to account for repetition. Such is therefore the default of every argument grounded in the form of identity in the concept: these arguments give us only a nominal definition and a negative explanation of repetition. No doubt the formal identity which corresponds to simple logical blockage may be opposed to real identity (the Same) as this appears in natural blockage. But natural blockage itself requires a positive supra-conceptual force capable of explaining it, and of thereby explaining repetition. (DR 15-16)

After the difficulty of the last section, these sentences are a bit disconcerting: all that Deleuze achieved in the previous four pages (which only took me about four months to get through, after all!) is nothing but a negative conceptualization of repetition. In other words, he has merely continued his sketch, which he began on the very first page of his introduction, of what repetition is not. Just as “[r]epetition is not generality” from the point of view of conducts (substitution or exchange) or from the point of view of natural or moral laws, it is also “not generality” from the point of view of representation, that is, of the concept (DR 1). Repetition cannot be found, in other words, within the conceptual relationship between two or more distinct things in the world. The repetitions that do emerge under the conditions of natural blockage do so, according to Deleuze, because of their non-identity with the concepts in use, because they are shut out of the process of representation altogether. Something repeats, yes, but this something is not captured, recorded, or mastered by the concept of a thing. Repetition occurs when the concept cannot do something, when something occurs without its consent. And yet, this something is still triggered by a conceptual blockage. In the case of nominal concepts (e.g., words), the comprehension of the concept is necessarily finite; in the case of concepts of Nature, one gathers distinct objects under a single concept, objects which cannot recall or remember or recognize one another; and in the case of concepts of freedom (e.g. memories), one’s “free faculty” (DR 14) represents a past event or a past relationship by holding back or repressing elements that remain unknown and thoroughly unconscious, elements that may (at any time) return. For as interesting as these conceptual moves are, however, while they frame repetition as radically distinct from the concept, repetition remains in an oddly negative, derivative position. Deleuze desires a positive account of repetition that encompasses natural blockage as a secondary or derivate movement.

To anticipate this account, Deleuze slows down in his fourth section and explores Sigmund Freud’s notion of repetition (and its relation to disguise, repression, and death) a bit more closely. He hopes to turn around the Freudian logic of his previous section—”we repeat because we repress” (DR 16)—and to argue, instead, that “I repress because I repeat, I forget because I repeat” (DR 18). Repetition, he will assert, is a primary and positive mechanism.

Deleuze notes that Freud’s interest in the connection between repression and repetition “was never satisfied with [. . .] a negative schema, in which repetition is explained by amnesia” (16). (Likewise, Deleuze is not satisfied with a repetition explained by conceptual limitation, alienation, or repression.) Though Freud always considered “repression [. . .] a positive power,” Deleuze writes, “from the beginning [. . .] he borrowed this positivity from the pleasure principle or from the reality principle: it was merely a derived positivity, one of opposition.” Until Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In this odd text, Freud speculatively outlines a “death instinct” that “serves as a positive, originary principle” unconnected to “destructive tendencies” or “aggressivity.” This sense of death is so radically counter-intuitive; far from signifying the sense of an ending or the failure of survival, the death instinct corrals repetition and the work of the unconscious as it generates dreams and symptoms. The problem Freud addresses in this late work is the fact that, while the two principles of psychoanalysis—the pleasure and reality principles—seem to work well as fundamental laws of the psyche, there is no account of why they are laws at all (or how they became laws or principles in the first place). Freud’s interest in repetitive behavior and the untimely returns of repressed, unconscious material illustrates this problem nicely. Whether one considers children’s play, the mechanism of trauma, or the recurrence of dream images in everyday life, something evades the principles of pleasure and reality, something that has nothing to do with the determination of this “something” as pleasureable or painful (or with the tolerance of pain for some future pleasure) but with “something” far more radical: an instinct or drive or urgency that is much older and universal. In this short work, Freud writes:

The manifestations of a compulsion to repeat [. . .] exhibit a high degree of instinctual character and, when they act in oppossition to the pleasure principle, give the appearance of some ‘daemonic’ force at work. [. . .] But how is the predicate of being ‘instinctual’ related to the compulsion to repeat? At this point we cannot escape a suspicion that we may have come upon the track of a universal attribute of instincts and perhaps of organic life in general which has not hitherto been clearly recognized or at least not explicitly stressed. It seems, then, that an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things which the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of external disturbing forces; that is, it is a kind of organic elasticity, or, to put it another way, the expression of the inertia inherent in organic life. (Beyond the Pleasure Principle 41, 43)

Before any manifestation of the compulsion to repeat, in short, there is a more primary repetition at work: the return to that which was not repressed (indeed, which has never truly been encountered): an urgent, conservative drive to maintain things as they are. In Freud’s speculations, experienced repetitions that align with shifting economies of pleasure and pain are derivative, inspired (in a sense) by this much more transcendental operation. Though Freud will continue to re-map this radical operation (which he will eventually term “death instincts” [53]) within his established dualisms (ego/id, ego-instincts/sexual-instincts, masochism/sadism), there are occasional deviations that pique Deleuze here. In the case of masochism, for instance, which psychoanalysis always pairs with sadism (as if they constituted two fragmented pieces of a single “best friend” pendant), Freud suggests that there might of a “primary masochism” (analogous to the death instinct, to the transcendental repetition) that is not merely “complementary to sadism,” not merely a “sadism that has been turned round upon the subject’s own ego” (66). Despite the allure of this suggestion, Freud immediately abandons it in order to return to the much more empirical matter of “cell-division” and “the conjugation of protozoa” (66-67). Indeed, this suggestion inspires Deleuze’s thesis in “Coldness and Cruelty” (1967): “The sadist and masochist might well be enacting separate dramas, each complete in itself, with different sets of characters and no possibility of communication between them, either from inside or from outside” (Masochism 45). These shimmers of deviation from organic and psychoanalytic domains inspire Deleuze’s early fascination with Beyond the Pleasure Principle and indicate why he refers to it as “the masterpiece [in] which [. . .] [Freud] engaged most directly—and how penetratingly—in specifically philosophical reflection” (Masochism 111). More philosophical because more transcendentally-oriented, more ontological, more speculative. Even if Freud cannot bring himself to continue down the speculative paths he opens up (partly because these paths would lead him away from the individual psyche as his primary unit of analysis and theorization) the transcendental field of the “death instinct” or drive is precisely the groundless ground Deleuze wishes to pursue in Difference and Repetition. It is, in a sense, that which he needs for a positive account of repetition.


But unlike Freud, who “was unable to prevent himself [from] maintaining the model of a brute repetition,” that is, “the fruit of a secondary compromise between the opposed forces of the Ego and the Id [. . .] as a tendency to return to the state of inanimate matter,” Deleuze wants to continue sketching out a theatrical, masochistic repetition in which disguises, masks, costumes, reflections, doubles, echoes, souls, and their variations comprise “internal genetic elements,” the “integral and constituent parts” of repetition rather than derivations that lay “over and above” some sort of primordial self or substance (DR 17). In other words, Deleuze wants to follow the path Freud opens in Beyond the Pleasure Principle but wants to do so in a way inspired by Kierkegaard and Nietzshce’s respective notions of repetition: a repetition that abandons the notion of an originary “first term” that undergoes (or suffers) repetition. This abandonment of a “first term” gives us a clue for how to read Deleuze’s sense of the singularity; the singularity differs from the individual or the original insofar as it is always already an arrangement of disguises, echoes, and masks; the fall of the Bastille and Monet’s first water lily (Deleuze’s borrowed examples which appear on his first page) were always already repetitions. The poem which I learn “by heart,” the singularity which I learn to repeat is always already an arranged and theatrical repetition (DR 1-2).

Let’s think a bit more about what Deleuze himself writes:

Repetition is truly that which disguises itself in constituting itself, that which constitutes itself only by disguising itself. It is not underneath the masks, but is formed from one mask to another, as though from one distinctive point to another, from one privileged instant to another, with and within the variations. The masks do not hide anything except other masks. There is no first term which is repeated, and even our childhood love for the mother repeats other adult loves with regard to other women, rather like the way in which the hero of In Search of Lost Time replays with his mother Swann’s passion for Odette. There is therefore nothing repeated which may be isolated or abstracted from repetition in which it was formed, but in which it is also hidden. There is no bare repetition which may be abstracted or inferred from the disguise itself. The same thing is both disguising and disguised. (DR 17)

The allusion to Proust is quite instructive, especially given the ordering of the repetitions: the narrative of Swann and Odette occurs, after all, after its repetition in the bedtime drama which opens the novel. It is significant that there is no primary love in the Search—at least according to Deleuze—because the absence of a primary love (or a Same that repeats itself in subsequent loves) theorizes an opening of escape from the serialization of passionate episodes. Each episode—though still a repetition—constitutes a theatrical singularity, the variation of a theme, the repetition of difference without origin or grounding. This account of love in Proust’s novel possibilities a radical approach to love as an arrangement not only of lover and beloved but of a whole milieu of components, actors, masks, movements, etc. Indeed, this is the “compositional” love that I am interested in developing in my own work (which I sort of touch on here and here). It might also be instructive to compare this paragraph—and Deleuze’s more extensive reading of Proust in Proust and Signs (1964; 1972) with Derrida’s reading of Rousseau and “the supplement” in the Grammatology.

But back to Deleuze (and on to the next page!):

A decisive moment in psychoanalysis occurred when Freud gave up, in certain respects, the hypothesis of real childhood events, which would have played the part of ultimate disguised terms [i.e., the original and authentic terms which masks cover up], in order to substitute the power of fantasy which is immersed in the death instinct, where everything is already masked and disguised. Difference is included in repetition by way of disguise and by the order of the symbol. This is why the variations do not come from without, do not express a secondary compromise between a repressing instance and a repressed instance, and must not be understood on the basis of the still negative forms of opposition, reversal or overturning. The variations express [. . .] the differential mechanisms which belong to th essence and origin of that which is repeated. [. . .] The mask, the costume, the covered is everywhere the truth of the uncovered. The mask is the true subject of repetition. Because repetition differs in kind from representation, the repeated cannot be represented: rather, it must always be signified, masked by what signifies it, itself masking what it signifies. (DR 17-18)

What is the difference between signification and representation? What does Deleuze actually think of the death instinct ordrive?  James Williams is quite useful here, borrowing a few terms from Deleuze’s later work with Guattari: “So we repeat because, as masks, that is, as combinations of actual things, sensations, virtual ideas and the intensities that light them up, we are driven to play different aspects of ourselves in different ways, again and again” (48). Awesome. This reading definitely resonates with the paragraphs about Nietzsche and Kierkegaard’s respective philosophical styles (their uses of masks and personae), but how does this relate to signification? To the death drive? Williams continues: “This play [of roles] must not be explained in terms of a drive to return to an origin [as Freud speculates in Beyond the Pleasure Principle]. [. . .] Instead, it is a result of the ‘fact’ that we are a necessarily unstable combination of actual things and pure differences. The Deleuzian definition of a mask is, then, something that represents nothing but, instead, puts significant components of other masks into play again [i.e., signifies] in new ways (a sadder smile, faster tears, less furrowed brow—this time round).” According to this reading of Deleuze’s reading of the death drive, death has less to do with a material, organic end to an individual’s lifespan but, rather, the death of the authentic, bare, original Sameness given in the representation of things. And signification? While signification and representation might overlap in some poststructuralist theories, for Deleuze signification is merely the composition of a feeling or sense of significance or meaning (what he will call a “sign,” not to be confused with the Sausserian sign). Repetition is a felt, which is to say a sensuous, mechanism that builds significance and sensibility and skill (as in the case of an apprenticeship or a swimming lesson, examples which we will encounter in a few pages). But in building this significance, as Deleuze puts it, the repeated singularity is masked in being made significant or meaningful and, furthermore, possibilizes future maskings, echoes, reflections, doublings, and variations. Returning to Proust, in a gesture of conclusion, we might say that each affair of Swann, of Charlus, of Odette, of Gilberte, of Albertine, or of our Narrator repeat other affairs (which are no more or less authentic) insofar as they imbue a whole territory (which they actually compose and arrange) with significant intensities . . . An affair as a work of art. As a repetition of a difference. As a genesis (rather than the derivation of an authentic or original model).

In my next post, I will round out this fourth section. After that, there is only one more  introductory section (pp.  19-26) before Deleuze’s brief concluding section on pp. 26-27.

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